Not long after September 11, 2001, Paul Berman wrote a masterful little book called Terror and Liberalism that electrified me the first time I read it. Later it served as a philosophical and political anchor for me as I ventured out on long and sometimes dangerous journeys in the Middle East to uncover things for myself.
He returns now with a new book called The Flight of the Intellectuals, which is your required reading this month. It picks up, in some ways, where Terror and Liberalism left off. While we haven’t had a repeat of the apocalyptic terrorist attacks on September 11, what we do have is an entirely new class of people in the Western democracies who live in hiding and under armed guard from the same sorts of killers. Salman Rushdie was but the first, and Somalia-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one-time collaborator with the butchered Theo Van Gogh, is now but the most famous.
Something terrible has happened to the intellectual class during the interim period. The killers’ would-be victims have been excoriated in the press, and even, in some cases, blamed for their predicament. Berman won’t stand for it. As Ron Rosenbaum put it hopefully in a recent review of Berman’s new book in Slate, “Maybe some of the previously silent will begin to speak out against the death squads rather than snark about their victims and targets.”
The Flight of the Intellectuals begins and ends with Tariq Ramadan, a troubling Swiss-born Islamist who has been praised to the heavens by some of the very same intellectuals who carp nastily about Hirsi Ali. Paul and I spent a recent afternoon talking about his book and some of the questions it raises.
MJT: You’ve spent a great deal of time reading and criticizing Tariq Ramadan, and reading and criticizing others who have written about Tariq Ramadan. What is it that drew you to him in particular?
Paul Berman: I stumbled onto him by accident. I had seen his name mentioned as an admirable young reforming moderate in the world of Islamic religious thinkers, and I thought of him as a good guy based on that reputation. Then by chance I came across a book of his in an Islamic bookstore in New York. I read it, and I was struck by the contrast between what I read by him and what I had read about him.
I touched on this in passing in a book I wrote some years ago, Terror and Liberalism. And then I became ever more fascinated by the contrast. Also a little indignant about it. And the more I poked at the contrast, the more central it seemed to me to some of our debates and dilemmas regarding the Muslim religious world and how we should look at our own journalism. I became seriously interested in Ramadan himself. He is truly an interesting personality, almost someone out of Shakespeare or some great novel that hasn’t been written.
He is fated by his family heritage to stand for certain things. But he is fated by his own personal temper and the time in which he lives to stand for other things. He upholds every possible position and its opposite, which did seem to me kind of interesting.
So I plunged into a mad campaign of reading. I read works by Tariq Ramadan, by his family, and sometimes by people around him. I read works written about him. And I marveled at the contrasts and confusions.
MJT: He has his defenders, and they’re aware of you and some of the others whom you quote in your book who are critical of him, but they don’t see what the big deal is. They don’t seem to think there’s much there there. Can you give us the short version of your argument?
Paul Berman: He has different kinds of defenders. Some of those people are his own fans or followers. But he also has defenders in the Western liberal press who are not themselves Muslims and certainly have no relation to the Islamist political movement.
The Western liberals, some of them, defend Ramadan for two reasons. If you listen to Ramadan for fifteen minutes, you will learn that he says all the right things, whatever a liberal-minded person would want such a man to say.
MJT: He does.
Paul Berman: He’s against bigotry, he’s against anti-Semitism, he’s against terrorism, he’s for the rights of women, he’s in favor of democratic liberties, he’s for a tolerant and multi-religious society ruled ultimately by secular values. He’s for science, learning, and enlightenment. He’s in favor of every possible good thing. There isn’t a single objectionable point in the first fifteen minutes of his presentation.
Paul Berman: Unfortunately, the sixteenth minute arrives, and, if you are still paying attention, you learn that he wants us to revere the most vicious and reactionary of Islamist sheikhs — the people who promote violence, bigotry, totalitarianism, and terror. The sixteenth minute is not good. The liberal quality of his thinking falls apart entirely.
However, his liberal admirers in the Western press stop paying attention in the fifteenth minute, and they rush to acclaim him. They do it by mistake. That’s one reason.
But they are motivated also by something else. I think a lot of people without Muslim backgrounds have a hard time imagining how vast and complex and huge and finally ordinary the Muslim world is. There are a billion and a half Muslims, and they do have more than one opinion. But I think a lot of journalists and intellectuals whose experiences are mostly European or Western somehow end up imagining that the whole of Islam constitutes a single thing. They imagine that some single terrible error has occurred within Islam. And they imagine that the single terrible error is going to be undone and corrected by a single messianic figure. So they go about surveying the horizon looking for the grand good guy, the single person who is going to rescue us from the single terrible error.
On this basis, we have ended up with a lot of liberal-minded journalists who proclaim themselves to be the enemies of racism and bigotry, and who engage, even so, in the worst sort of stereotyping of a vast portion of mankind, in their enthusiastic quest for the great Muslim hope. These people hear the first fifteen minutes of Tariq Ramadan’s presentation, they leap from their seats and they say, “There he is. We found him.” And they rush into print to proclaim the good news.
MJT: I think you’re right. I know a number of Arab and Muslim liberals and moderates. Some of them are my friends, and I’ve interviewed countless more. I’ve caught myself looking for something like that from time to time myself, although I realize it’s more than a little ridiculous, especially after hearing you describe it that way.
It’s interesting that so many Western journalists who have written about Tariq Ramadan can’t digest the sixteenth minute.
Paul Berman: No, they can’t. Partly it’s sloppiness, but mostly it’s fear of discovering what they’re going to hear in the sixteenth minute. They don’t really want to take him seriously. He demands to be taken seriously, yet his admirers are precisely the types who, out of fear of the sixteenth minute, don’t wish to do so.
What you discover in the sixteenth minute is that Tariq Ramadan is his grandfather’s grandson. And his grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 and played a huge role in introducing all kinds of horrendous modern ideas into the world of Sunni Muslim religious thinking, which then spread also into other zones of Islam. Ramadan is someone—if you pay attention to the sixteenth minute—who wants to remain loyal, as best he can, to that family tradition. And he does remain loyal, though sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in ways that are far from obvious.
MJT: You wrote in your book that he must look to reactionary Islamists like he’s half lost to the vapors of Western liberalism. Do you think that makes him an improvement over his grandfather, or is he perhaps a bit more dangerous, from our point of view, because he still half belongs to the world of radical Islam yet comes across as though he does not?
Paul Berman: There is a half-a-cup debate to be had about Ramadan. In some ways he is, in fact, an improvement over his grandfather and his father, Said Ramadan, who was quite a case himself. On the other hand, he also argues that his grandfather was already perfect — that his grandfather was a kind of democrat, though his grandfather was in fact a charismatic demagogue with a plan for a totalitarian state. Tariq Ramadan tells his audiences: you must tread in the path of Hassan al-Banna. This means treading in the path of all kinds of terrible people. But Ramadan also says: the path of Hassan al-Banna is the path of democracy, tolerance, and rationalism. And so, Ramadan introduces a remarkable ambiguity into the debate, which ends up producing a sea of intellectual confusion.
This is what has drawn me to the topic. In the past I’ve written about bad-guy bad guys. I became interested in the most radical tendencies to come out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the tendencies that culminated in Al Qaeda and similar groups. I wrote at length about a philosopher from the Muslim Brotherhood named Sayyid Qutb, who composed his books in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and came up with some of the doctrines that, in a still more radicalized version posthumously, produced the doctrines that we see today in Al Qaeda and some other groups.
Ramadan is a completely different case. He’s not a bad-guy bad guy. Ramadan is in a gray zone. If the first fifteen minutes of his presentation were the whole of it, I would be his fan. But then he goes on into the sixteenth minute, and we’re back to the traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood.
MJT: What’s fascinating to me is how some Western intellectuals will praise this guy as a moderate when he is, at best, only half moderate, and yet at the same time they sneer at authentic Arab liberals.
Paul Berman: Yes.
MJT: You provided some examples in your book, and I’ve some experience with this myself. I was in Beirut when the Syrian military was finally thrown out by a million citizens taking to the streets, and the whole thing was dismissed by some people in the West as a right-wing Christian Gucci revolution.
Beirut, Lebanon, March 14, 2005
Paul Berman: Yes.
MJT: It was absolutely appalling, and I will never forget it. To this day I get hate mail from these kinds of people when I write about Lebanon.
Paul Berman: It really is something remarkable. I can understand it intellectually, but not emotionally. It comes from some old and very unattractive currents in Western thought that we can see over the course of the 20th century.
Remember, a lot of people despised the Soviet dissidents, too.
MJT: Right. What do you think causes this? I think I have it mostly figured out, but I still feel like I’m missing something.
Paul Berman: Well, I don’t have it entirely figured out either. [Laughs.] But I note it. In regard to the Soviet dissidents of the past, at least nowadays there is a consensus of opinion that, yes, the dissidents were correct and we should have listened to them. So why didn’t we? When I say “we,” I mean the intellectual community as a whole in the Western countries. And it’s for a whole set of reasons.
An outright sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union itself was only one of those reasons. This only accounted for one set of people.
There were other people who dismissed the dissidents for what you might call conservative reasons. They wanted to assume the Slavic world was hopelessly steeped in traditions of autocracy and ignorance and habits of obedience and deference — the traditions of tsarism. They could see very well that communism in the Soviet Union had replicated the whole tsarist system, in a new version. There was a leader at the top whose rule was uncontestable. There were the masses at the bottom who had to proclaim the wisdom of the leader at the top. And a lot of people looked at this and said, yes, this is what the Slavic world is supposed to be. This is the authentic thing. Slavs are inherently inferior to Westerners. They aren’t capable of being free people. They aren’t capable of thinking for themselves.
So when the dissidents rushed out and told us that the Soviet Union is crushing individual liberty or doing other oppressive things, our response to them was to pat them on the head and say, well, it’s nice that you got out, and you are welcome to stay, but you’re not talking about the real world. The real world is one where Slavs are destined to remain forever victims of oppressive tyrants, and this is because Slavs enjoy being victims, so we’re not going to take people like you, the dissidents, all that seriously.
The logic behind that kind of thinking is very appealing, to some people. It pictures a world that is dominated by cultures that we like to regard as authentic — cultures with unchanging deep qualities that go back thousands of years, and may be rich with cultural jewels, but will never produce anything more progressive and will certainly never embrace the kinds of freedoms and advantages and dynamism that we celebrate in our own culture. So that’s one idea.
Then there’s another idea that appeals to many people, which is based not on our own feeling of superiority, but on our own inferiority. We look at ourselves in the Western countries and we say that, if we are rich, relatively speaking, as a society, it is because we have plundered our wealth from other people. Our wealth is a sign of our guilt. If we are powerful, compared with the rest of the world, it is because we treat people in other parts of the world in oppressive and morally objectionable ways. Our privileged position in the world is actually a sign of how racist we are and how imperialistic and exploitative we are. All the wonderful successes of our society are actually the signs of how morally inferior we are, and we have much to regret and feel guilty about. So when we look at the world, we should look at it in a spirit of humility and remorse, and we should recognize that other people have been unfairly treated.
We should recognize the superiority of those other people over ourselves. Money-wise, we may be richer. But, morally, the other people are richer. And so, we should despise ourselves, and we should love the other people — the people who possess qualities so superior to our own as barely to be human. And then, filled with those very peculiar ideas, we set about looking for messianic figures who might express the superior culture of the other people, and might lead the human race to a higher stage of development. And if someone objects to this analysis, we say, oh, we inferior Westerners are incapable of understanding the mysterious thought-patterns of those other people, so who are you to judge?
MJT: I think you have it pretty well worked out.
Paul Berman: I assure you, I don’t.
MJT: This all sounds right to me. You just described two very different, even opposite tendencies, one which you’ve described as conservative, the other which could only be described as leftist. Lately, though, it seems what you describe as the conservative view of the Slavic world is now, in some ways, a left-wing view of the Arab world.
Paul Berman: Yes.
MJT: A lot of the people who contemptuously dismiss Lebanese liberalism fuse these two views together. Not only were the Lebanese who took to the streets and demanded the Syrian occupiers leave their country not acting in a way that Arabs are supposed to act, George W. Bush came along and said something nice about them. So not only are these people “inauthentic” Arabs for resisting Syria and Iran instead of Israel and the United States, but now George W. Bush’s America is taking their side which effectively puts them on the wrong side of history.
Paul Berman: Yes. There was and is a tendency like that. I will admit that, in one infinitesimally tiny respect, I can sympathize with it. It is because of George W. Bush. I also used to think, when I heard George W. Bush speak, that the opposite must be true. If George W. Bush said the sun rises in the east, I would have been tempted to argue that, on the contrary, the sun rises in the west.
MJT: [Laughs.] I used to react to Bush that way, as well, but I had to stop after a while. I stopped after 9/11.
Paul Berman: I’m confessing to my own prejudice here, but I couldn’t bear the tone of the man. I stopped listening to his speeches and instead started reading his speeches online. Some of his speeches were really well written. As long as I read them and didn’t listen to them on TV, I was happy with them — at least, with certain passages.
I think it’s worth bringing this up because Bush did seem to inspire an irrational response in many people, and I sympathize with the people who responded that way. I’d like to think that I overcame my irrational response to Bush, or at least I can identify it and laugh at it, but it did exist.
Who was it who coined the phrase Bush Derangement Syndrome?
MJT: I don’t know who coined it, but it certainly describes a real phenomenon.
Paul Berman: It’s a great phrase. [Laughs.]
MJT: It is, isn’t it?
Paul Berman: Whoever coined that phrase should write in to your blog, and the rest of us will proclaim him a genius.
Bush Derangement Syndrome does exist! I know it exists because I feel it in myself sometimes. And that has to be thrown into the mix.
MJT: I used to feel it myself, and I have to say it’s much easier to get past it when you spend time in the hard parts of the world instead of in soft places like France. I was in Georgia, for instance, when Russia invaded and carved up the country. Nobody there had anything bad to say about George W. Bush except some of the Americans who were visiting, who were angry at the Georgians for saying nice things about Bush. This was at a time when Russia was attacking Georgia and Bush was sticking up for Georgia, so what on earth would any rational person expect the Georgians to say?
Paul Berman: I had an experience like that in relation to Ronald Reagan. I had a huge learning experience in Nicaragua in the 1980s when I was reporting for the Village Voice on the Sandinista revolution — a Marxist semi-communist revolution in those days.
Reagan was against the Sandinistas, and he did all kinds of things that, at the time, I thought were terrible. And I still think he did terrible things. Still, I was always astounded when I was among very poor people in Nicaragua to learn how many people liked Ronald Reagan. I would question them, and I could comprehend their answers, pretty much.
MJT: What did they say?
Paul Berman: Extremely poor market women, for instance, in an extremely poor town, would tell me, “the workers and peasants are suffering.”
I would ask, “Who is defending the workers and the peasants?”
And they would say, “Ronald Reagan.”
I said, “Ronald Reagan is defending the workers and peasants?”
Paul Berman: And they would say, “Yes!”
All they knew—and they got this from the Sandinista news radio—was that if the Sandinista regime had a bitter enemy anywhere in the world, it was Ronald Reagan. And therefore they felt he was defending the workers and peasants. Their way of speaking about the workers and peasants reflected the Marxist rhetoric, but they hated the Marxists.
Paul Berman: I saw something similar in the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution. I was there early in 1990, and I realized that masses of ordinary Czechs regarded the United States as an absolutely great place. They thought George Bush the elder, who was president then, was okay. But they really loved Ronald Reagan. It was because Reagan had denounced the Soviet Union and communism. He knew how to get the message through to them by speaking in an extremely simple way. Of course, it was the simplicity of his language that aroused the indignation of a good many liberal-minded people in the Western countries. But he knew how to make himself understood in the Eastern bloc.
So I well understand what it was like in Georgia. I was in Poland a few months ago, where there is a certain nostalgia right now for George W. Bush because there is a feeling among some people, at least, that maybe Bush was a more reliable ally against neo-expansionism in Russia than Barack Obama might turn out to be.
MJT: They may be right.
I lot of people around the world like Obama, and they seem to like him for very different reasons than Reagan was liked. They seem to like Obama because they sense he won’t cause trouble, but nobody seems to think he’s going to save them. I don’t get the sense that anyone out there in an oppressed country thinks Obama will ever do much for them.
Paul Berman: Hmm.
MJT: You don’t agree?
Paul Berman: I’m thinking it over.
Obama is a complex symbol, more than any of our previous presidents. The fact that he’s black counts for a lot. It signifies, I think, to a lot of people around the world that America really is the democratic place it claims to be. Every last person around the world who knows the slightest thing about politics knows that the worst thing about America has always been its racism against blacks.
Paul Berman:. So the fact that America has elected a black president and the fact that the black president is attractive and appealing communicates a message, in Reagan-like fashion, in a way that’s not even conveyed necessarily through words. Reagan was said to be a master of the photo op, but Obama is a walking photo op. If he just stands there, he’s a photo op. It’s as if he has beautified the American flag.
I think his presidency has a certain meaning that’s inspiring to people, though it doesn’t bear on the question of policy.
In regard to policy, I can sympathize with what you’re saying. The problem is that Bush, during his eight years, managed to say to people all over the world that he was standing for the oppressed, that he was going to fight for people who were threatened by tyrants, but he compromised everything he said with an incompetence of action. He successfully achieved some of what he set out to do, but he also managed to bungle outrageously. So despite all his marvelous oratory, the oratory that I read and admired, it ended up meaning very little.
Some of his incompetence turned out to be disastrous, so I can understand why the Obama Administration has reverted to an anti-idealist “realism.” I don’t approve of this reversion, and I think it’s ironic that it’s being done by the left.
MJT: It is, isn’t it? They’ve adopted an old conservative position.
Paul Berman: Yes. This is the ultimate in Bush Derangement Syndrome. We have a liberal administration practicing the most conservative of old foreign policies. I can understand a little how this happened, but I wish they’d get over it. [Laughs.]
MJT: The Bush Administration was saying all kinds of things that the left used to say, and now the Democratic Party is saying all sorts of things that the right used to say. I can’t help but wonder if the reversal is permanent.
Paul Berman: I find it hard to believe. I think there’s a DNA code in some of these things, and sooner or later the DNA is going to kick into action. The Obama Administration contains a lot of people who played noble roles in the Balkans during the Clinton years, and Hillary Clinton herself presumably learned some of those lessons. So it’s hard for me to imagine that the Democrats are going to stay this way.
I’ve always found John McCain to be a very noble and appealing character, and he certainly proved to be right on some issues, like the surge in Iraq, but he never persuaded me that he had the kind of sophistication to pursue a successful foreign policy. I feared he was going to be someone like Bush, noble in rhetoric and incompetent in action.
What do you think, by the way, is going to happen with my book?
MJT: I think it should be extremely interesting even to readers who don’t agree with you because you go far out of your way to give a fair hearing to the other side in these debates. You praise Timothy Garton Ash, for instance, who really has done great work. But then you point out how he held up a supposedly moderate cleric from Egypt, Jamal al Banna, as more worth listening to than Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Now, Hirsi Ali can be a bit harsh at times, but al Banna is a supporter of suicide terrorism. I don’t agree with Hirsi Ali about everything, but for God’s sake, to compare her unfavorably to someone who supports the mass murder of civilians is extraordinary.
Paul Berman: There is something deeply off in these discussions. Hirsi Ali has ten thousand opinions, and I don’t agree with them all either. I don’t even agree with all my own opinions. But she’s visibly a reasonable rational person arguing through the issues as you would want any reasonable person to do. And some of the people she’s unfavorably compared to are not. This ought to be obvious.
MJT: You do a good job unearthing fascinating characters I hadn’t heard of before. I didn’t know about Sayyid Qutb, for instance, the modern philosopher of Islamic terrorism, until you introduced me to him almost a decade ago. I would have found him by now because lots of people have written about him, but you were the first one to write about him in the mainstream press.
Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of Al Qaeda theology
Paul Berman: I was thrilled when I discovered Sayyid Qutb. The man makes sense, sort of.
MJT: He does, sort of. His world view is understandable and logical on its own terms.
Paul Berman: Yeah. He gets at some deep things, in a horrendous way. You can see why someone could get drawn into it.
The news media always seem shocked to discover that the latest suicide bomber is an educated guy from a privileged background, but why? I understand it perfectly. An ordinary uneducated person would never get lost reading the dozens of volumes by Sayyid Qutb, but an educated person might. And the next thing they know they’ve lost their moral bearings, and there they are, ready to pull the plug.
MJT: I also appreciate the chapters in your new book about German foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II. It’s all absolutely fascinating and disturbing. You’ve written about this before, and so have others, so I wasn’t entirely unaware of what happened, but I didn’t realize the Nazis spent that much time and effort broadcasting their message about Zionism and Jews into the Arab world.
Paul Berman: I had written about it before, but less was known then than is known now.
MJT: Right. I’ve been all over Arab world, and to many Muslim countries outside the Arab world, and conversations about Zionism and Jews are very different outside the Arab world. The differences are striking, sometimes overwhelming. Nazi Germany’s foreign policy in the Arab world can’t explain all of it, but I think it does explain part of it.
Paul Berman: It’s a big issue. It was a big issue in the invasion of Iraq, when Saddam’s army took up their positions with their chemical warfare suits expecting, as we later learned, to be attacked with chemical weapons by Israel. The whole question of paranoid ideas about Jews and about Israel has, I think, been underreported.
MJT: Even within Iraq, though, ideas about Jews and Israel vary. The Kurds, for the most part, like Israel. I find it fascinating how the opinions of Arab and non-Arab Muslims can vary so wildly. If you want to look for bad things written about Jews in the Koran, they’re in there. And the Koran is, of course, read by Muslims outside the Arab world. They seem more likely to skip over this stuff and not take it seriously, though. The leadership in Iran is not at all typical.
Paul Berman: The Kurds, yes. We know this about the Kurds. Why is it the case? Of course, it bears on the question of Arabism.
MJT: Absolutely. The Kurds are a minority in the Middle East. They’re indigenous to the Middle East while the Arabs are not. And Arab Nationalists make enemies of all the minorities, which includes both the Kurds and the Jews. So Kurds and Jews have a common enemy, and they have no real-world reason to dislike each other. Some Kurds are surely aware that this anti-Jewish stuff is in the Koran, but they either don’t care or don’t take it seriously. Their problems with Arab Nationalism are much more immediate and pressing.
Paul Berman: There are also some semi-nice things about Jews in the Koran. It can be read in different ways.
Iraq had one of the largest Jewish populations in the Middle East.
MJT: It was huge. A third of Baghdad almost.
Paul Berman: An Iraqi friend explained to me that in the 1950s, some of Iraq’s greatest pop singers were Jews, so even now if you get into a nostalgic music phase, you’ll be nostalgic for the old Jewish pop stars. Even today, you can’t eliminate Jews from Iraqi culture.
It’s all very mysterious and, I think, poorly understood. The German aspect of this story is part of it. It’s not the whole of it, but it’s a part of it. And it’s a part that bears in some degree on Tariq Ramadan because his own grandfather, as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, was tied to German policy by his very intense and passionate alliance with the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was the most influential of the Palestinian leaders, unfortunately, in that period.
Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and Adolf Hitler
The mufti was a hardcore supporter of Nazism. He delivered Nazi-like speeches, or speeches presenting Nazi ideas translated horribly into Koranic phrases over short-wave radio during the war. And Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather was his great ally.
Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini inspects Nazi troops
If you keep paying attention to Ramadan, this is one of the things that comes up in the sixteenth minute, or the seventeenth minute. If people ask him about it, he gets really testy and declines to answer or declines to answer honestly. It’s a big deal, I think. It’s not just a matter of having a peculiar grandfather, which of course we can’t be responsible for.
Paul Berman: But he has written at length about his grandfather, in one of his major books. He reveres his grandfather. His grandfather’s doctrines lie at the heart of his own thinking. And his grandfather’s legacy is quite important. It is a living legacy, as I try to show in my book.
MJT: You mention in your book how some Western intellectuals get really bent out of shape if you bring up Nazi foreign policy in the Arab world during World War II. What do you suppose that is about?
Paul Berman: Bush Derangement Syndrome may come into play because Bush used the phrase “Islamofascism.” But that’s not sufficient to explain the phenomenon.
Stop to consider: if you and I were to get up in front of an audience and have a conversation about France during World War II, we might point out that a lot of French people joined the Resistance, but a lot of other French people supported Hitler. We might point out that, if you want to understand French politics today, for instance the role of Jean Marie Le Pen and his National Front, it would make sense to look back on the Nazi sympathizers of the past, back in the 1930s and ’40s.
What would happen if you and I made those observations in front of an audience? The audience would nod sagely and say, “yes, those are interesting points, worthy of discussion.”
MJT: Yes, that’s true. This conversation has in fact been had thousands of times.
Paul Berman: We could have the same discussion about Latin America. We could point out that, if you want to understand the history and tradition of the ultra-right in Latin America, you ought to glance back at the mid-twentieth century and remember how much sympathy there was for the Fascist Axis in Latin America — a topic that has never been adequately investigated, by the way. If we were to say, “let’s discuss that,” people would again nod sagely and say, “yes, that’s worth discussing.”
And then we would go on to discuss how much emphasis should be put on this sort of thing, maybe a lot of emphasis, maybe only a little. It would be a matter for research and analysis, as with any political and historical question.
But the mere mention of this in relation to the Arab world gets people red in the face. They get very upset at the mere mention of it. And I find that…very peculiar.
MJT: It is very peculiar.
Paul Berman: How do you explain it?
MJT: I can partly explain it, I think, depending on who we’re talking about. I know some radical leftists who bum around the Middle East. I meet them, I have drinks with them. Many of them sympathize to one extent or another with the radical movements of the Middle East, which are actually reactionary and totalitarian movements. And if you point out that the ideas which animate these movements have a Nazi pedigree, you’re basically saying these Western radical leftists are Nazis, and no one takes kindly to being called Nazis.
But this only explains why the hard left gets red in the face. It doesn’t explain how people a little more sensible might also get red in the face. That, I don’t understand. I haven’t thought about it as much as you have because you have really delved into it, and I don’t have the answer.
Paul Berman: Another aspect that is odd: the same people who will say that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism will get upset about this discussion. And yet the discussion of Nazi influences is precisely one of the important discussions that might allow us to draw intelligent distinctions between the kind of opposition to Israel that is anti-Semitic and the kind that is not.
Paul Berman: But if you actually launch the discussion, people get upset.
MJT: Obviously there is a large overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Paul Berman: And a large resistance to wanting to discuss it.
MJT: Some people who are reflexively anti-Israel are just uninformed. They pick up a general vibe in the media, but are only vaguely aware of what actually happens in the Middle East. They aren’t even in the same time zone as the anti-Semites, they’re just aware that many people out there think the Israelis are harsh and that that’s not cool.
Paul Berman: Some people may perhaps fear that the entire Arab world is being branded as Nazi or pro-Nazi, and they may see this as a hideous slander.
Paul Berman: And it would, in fact, be a hideous slander.
MJT: It would be. It’s demonstrably false.
Paul Berman: But because there’s no discussion of the legacies from World War II, the slander has been allowed to persist. If you count up the number of troops, many more Arabs and Muslims from other parts of the world fought on the Allied side in World War II than fought on the Axis side.
Paul Berman: Forty thousand African troops died fighting with the free French forces to liberate Europe. A huge percentage of them would have been Muslims of various sorts. That’s really a staggering number. Even in Palestine, many more Palestinians fought with the British army than for the Nazi side, and those people have never been given their due. There is no historical memory of the noble role of a great many Arabs and Muslims in World War II. Instead, we have the apologetics of someone like Tariq Ramadan, trying to explain away or even to deny the role of people like his grandfather.
And what is the result? One result is that Ramadan goes on telling us to revere the people who carry on al-Banna’s legacy. The great example is a sheikh named Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is al-Banna’s leading champion in our own time. Qaradawi thinks Hitler was doing God’s work. He has said so, which is hard to believe. Actually, the Nazis were the first to say it, but Qaradawi repeats the argument. Qaradawi promotes suicide terror. He does it on television. He is probably the single most influential theological champion of Hamas.
Even so, Ramadan goes on saying nice things about Qaradawi. Ramadan does this even even in his most recent book
. He does it even while quarreling with Qaradawi on one point or another. Ramadan simply will not remove himself from this particular legacy. He doesn’t want to remove himself. It is his grandfather’s legacy. So Ramadan denies the meaning of the old legacy, and he gets redder in the face than anyone else if somebody wants to talk about it.
And yet, some genuinely well-intentioned liberals, people I admire, go on applauding Ramadan, as if Ramadan were himself a liberal. The whole intellectual atmosphere of right now has become a little strange on points like these. That’s the meaning of my title, The Flight of the Intellectuals. Too many very intelligent people are running away from looking at some very influential and pernicious doctrines of our own time. They don’t want to look. They prefer to shut their eyes and hope for the best.
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